Published by Tor, 2018 – 431 Pages
Why You Would Enjoy This Book
“The Calculating Stars won the 2019 Nebula Award for Best Novel, the 2019 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and the 2019 Sidewise Award for Alternate History.” (Wikipedia, 2023)
If you enjoyed Hidden Figures, you will also enjoy The Calculating Stars. It is an alternate history of an international space program where women aspire to fly missions much earlier. A cataclysmic meteorite strike off the coast of the eastern US is the precipitating event that leads to women having that hope.
The book has many authentic details and plot twists gleaned from Mary Robinette Kowal’s access to people in the space program! It is a story first of survival and relationships that help and hinder the protagonist, Elma York, as she enters the space program first as a human computer and works her way through years of obstacles. Most (but not all) of those obstacles are man-made.
A big factor in Elma’s progress is the support of key people around her, and many of those people are from discriminated-against minorities. Kowal demonstrates how we all need allies when breaking barriers.
If this is not enough to convince you to read The Calculating Stars, consider this – Mary Robinette Kowal was first a puppeteer and historical romance writer before turning to award-winning science fiction.
I normally review short SF on this site but Kowal’s novel is an exception. I felt the need to look into why it won so many awards.
The Luxury of Novel Writing: Even with the dramatic meteorite strike at the beginning, Kowal is still able slowly build up her characters to get to the action in Part 2, which starts almost 100 pages in.
As a short story writer who is all about the economy of writing, it always fascinates me to see the contrast in novel form. I was not drawn into Elma’s character as quickly as I would be when reading shorter fiction. I was drawn in by the time I got into Part 2. In Part 1, however, I did find myself actively involved asking questions about the characters and wanting to know more about their motivations.
Planning and Layout: I believe a lot of detailed planning went into this book. Chapters are discrete and much the same length. In her afterword, Kowal talks about how she left spaces for later research and in one case someone actually wrote some technical information to match her specifications. It is as important for a writer to have a network as it is for the character Alma in this book.
Each chapter begins with a news quote that helps to provide background information. This is a strong technique that has been widely used.
Characterization: I have written elsewhere on this site about the use of stereotypes in characterization. Kowal’s characters both use stereotypes and break them. Many characters approach female characters in ways that are stereotypical for the time. Elma’s husband, Nathanial, is an exception and he is incredibly supportive of Alma even for our own time.
Most characters are first presented in a way that could be expected. It is only as Alma interacts with them that we find out whether those first presentations are accurate or if they are exceptions to a stereotype. The black couple that befriends Alma and Nathanial are guarded at first, with good reason, and it takes them a while to reveal themselves.
Kowal resolves some attitudes to mental health issues in a way that deviates from what would have been likely in the 1950s. There is a bit of idealism here, but it does not take away from her characters or the plot.
Tone: I often wonder whether writers consciously choose a tone for their work, or whether they let it emerge and edit it for continuity afterwards. In this case, I suspect Kowal had a good idea of a target tone before she started writing.
Kowal’s narrative is almost like first-person reportage, with access to the feelings and thoughts of only one character. We feel an academic/engineering science-positive viewpoint through her choices of scientific language at various points (ranging from unbearable meetings to lovemaking), and math-driven problem-solving.
Mary Robinette Kowal
Wikipedia. (2023). The Calculating Stars. Accessed July 2, 2023 at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Calculating_Stars